With just a little over one month to go before we elect a new President of the United States, there is much to think about. With confrontations between citizens and the police, continued terrorist activity throughout the world, and an insecure economy, one could at least find comfort in the arts, and for a few hours each day, I was able to do just that.
The early part of September was mostly spent getting reacquainted with our house in suburban Detroit. It had been twelve weeks since Cindy and I had seen it, but everything seemed fine, and a sense of security fell upon our souls. All my kitchen utensils were where they were supposed to be, the home theater system was slightly misbehaving, and the everyday rituals came back easily.
It was my idea to keep a low profile, so there were only two trips to Orchestra Hall, mostly to play catch-up with the accumulated materials that had arrived over the summer. Of course there was a bit of studying to do, as I purposely let that part of my musical life disappear in Santa Fe. Fortunately, there really were no new pieces to do during the first two weeks in Lyon, and we headed off to France for what proved to be a most inspiring trip.
Although the ONL had already done two weeks of concerts at various festivals, the official opening of the season came in mid-September. There are a couple themes that run through the course of the year, and they include minimalism and the music of Russia. Both were represented in our first subscription concert.
One composer who will be represented this season is John Adams. He is now 70 and one of the grand masters. Although he detests the term, certainly many of his earlier pieces fall, more or less, into the first category of our theme. A Short Ride in a Fast Machine has become a standard opening piece, similar to the Candide Overture. It remains a fun piece to play and engages the audience even if they do not know a note of John’s music.
Although not my original idea, the work that followed it could be considered the polar opposite, at least in terms of rhythmic motion. John Cage is one of the icons of American music, but his pieces are more talked about than they are performed. One of them, 4’33”, is considered seminal in terms of its impact. For those of you who have not heard of this work, it consists entirely of silence. Many people believe that this was intended as a satire or perhaps a commentary. I take the view that it is a very important philosophical statement.
Cage believed that virtually every sound was music and that we are not aware of all the music that goes on around us. At first, I was going to give a short talk about the piece, using the first two bars of the “Eroica” Symphony to demonstrate how the two beats of silence in the first two bars are really what make the impact of the two slashing chords so significant. Eventually, we all decided that saying nothing was more interesting, just to see how the audience would react. However, prior to the start of the work, I did ask the orchestra to tune.
Upon entering the stage, I simply put my arms up and held them for the duration of the three movements, with the orchestra members doing the same with their instruments. We put them down between the sections. There were some giggles from the audience but not as many as I expected. Indeed, we became aware of the sounds of silence—those little coughs, the shuffling of program books, the humming of the air conditioning system—which is what I believe Cage wanted us to hear.
It turned out to be a success but something I think I will only do this one time. I am not sure that everyone attending understood what was going on or why, but it did seem to grab their attention, as did the next work on the program—or should I say, rather, the method of interpretation. Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a staple of the piano/orchestra repertoire and has been that way since its premiere. The interplay between soloist and orchestra is remarkable, and it is one of my very favorite pieces to conduct.
What was different was that the soloist was not a pianist, but an organist! Cameron Carpenter has taken the musical world by storm, creating his own international touring organ, which in itself is a complete sound machine. On this occasion, he performed on the historic organ that is in the Auditorium in Lyon.
An organist is probably the most difficult profession there is in music. Each instrument is so radically different from any other—it must take hours, if not days, to figure out how to play it. Playing the Rhapsody on an unfamiliar organ brought significant challenges for Cameron, who was used to doing this piece on his own instrument. The overriding question was could this highly pianistic work really succeed on a different instrument? The answer was an unqualified yes. By the time we had rehearsed and gotten around to the performance, I was convinced that Cameron’s decision not to try to imitate the piano was quite wise, making the piece very fresh indeed.
A day later, he played a recital that was breathtaking in both its mind-boggling display of technical dexterity and his always-interesting choices of registration and tempi. He has certainly contributed to moving organ-playing forward into the 21st century. We see him again later this season on a tour to Germany.
Following the interval, that indefatigable masterpiece, The Rite of Spring, concluded the concert. That it is now more than 100 years old makes it seem like an old friend, but as I told the orchestra, it is our job to make sure that the work is played as if no one has ever heard it before. These days, I tend to make the slower sections more akin to older Russian traditions, with some small tweaks to the dynamics and a bit of rubato here and there. The formerly impossible rhythmic difficulties had to be able to shake the audience out of their seats.
For any conductors reading this, I can give you one helpful tip. You need an orchestra that knows, more or less, how this piece goes. Then, in portions such as the Danse Sacrale, after you have rehearsed it, ask them to play it, but do not conduct. This forces even more concentration and attention on what is going on around the musicians. It also gives them more confidence. Sure, someone is going to come in at the wrong place, but the idea truly works and saves a lot of time.
Michael Tilson Thomas once pointed out to me an oddity, purely unintentional on the composer’s part. Look at the last bar in the double bass part. Read the notes from lowest to highest, spell them out, and see what word appears.
The performances were spectacular, easily some of the finest it has been my privilege to lead. Absolutely ravishing bassoon solo at the opening, totally solid brass playing, and truly virtuoso timpani from Benoit Cambreling. These were his final performances with the ONL as he now retires from the orchestra. What better piece to go out with?
From one large work to an even larger one. Verdi’s Requiem needs no introduction. The master’s testament to the dead remains one of the touchstones of the form. Some consider it to be the composer’s finest opera, but for me, it is a Requiem cast in Verdi’s unique musical language, similar in some respects to the same work by Berlioz.
Our artistic advisor, Christian Thompson, had put together an extraordinary quartet of soloists, none of whom I had ever worked with before this set of performances. Tamara Wilson, Jennifer Johnston, Ho-Yoon Chung, and James Platt not only were up to the Herculean challenges of the solo writing, but also worked beautifully in their ensemble moments. This was especially true in the places where Verdi asks for blended, soft singing.
In the past, the ONL had relied on a chorus founded by and named after Bernard Tétu. But Lyon has also been home to another vocal ensemble, the Britten Choir. Last season, they combined forces and became known as Spirito. Intonation is spot-on, and their ability to change color as needed was indeed remarkable. The opening of the work showed everyone, orchestra and chorus, that it really is possible to get a true pianissimo without sacrificing the quality of sound. These were performances that I will never forget.
Now it is back to Detroit to open the season subscription concerts there. Much to look forward to, but I did want to share something that occurred before my return. This is a Facebook posting by our associate concertmaster, Kim Kennedy. With all the tumult going on in the world, she reminds us of why we became musicians in the first place and why music and the arts matter.
See you next month.
Kim Kaloyanides Kennedy Detroit Symphony Orchestra September 22 at 12:42am
I am sure someone more eloquent than I will write a piece sharing what we at the DSO had the privilege of witnessing, experiencing today. But, I can’t wait to share. … We witnessed what some might call a miracle. One year ago, we witnessed the start of this miracle, in fact we might have even been the catalyst for it. Music is so powerful. I don’t think we can ever fully understand how music can touch the soul, mind, emotions, spirit and even the physical body. But, oh!!! It sure does, understood or not. Thank God for music. And, thank God for an organization willing to extend that healing power to those not usually able to attend traditional concerts.
One year ago, several special needs kids along with their families attended a rehearsal. At the end, one of the kids, Connor, came up to the stage and had the chance to conduct us. He was attached to his security pillow, hunched down, fearful, hiding. The music started and eventually he stood up straighter. He began to more fully experience the sounds around him and even made eye contact with a few of us. Little by little the pillow fell to the ground. Connor was totally immersed in the experience. There were many of us on stage moved to tears at the transformation happening before us. We felt so rewarded to do what we love to do and witnessing its impact.
A whole year has gone by. Today, we had another such rehearsal with kids from Stoney Creek Schools, and Connor was back. His dad spoke to us before Connor’s second debut on the podium. It was incredible to hear the account of this past year’s journey and how Connor’s life has completely transformed. Evidently, there is hardly a minute that goes by where Connor isn’t holding a baton. Daily, he sets up his animals in the shape of an orchestra and conducts them as if they are us. He seriously practices conducting, and it sure paid off. Connor couldn’t wait to get on the stage today. We smiled as he walked through the podium rather than around. He tapped on the stand to get our attention. And then he began, and so did we. Once again the tears are streaming down my face and my body is buzzing with the sheer gratitude of what is transpiring in front of me. A miracle. Connor received a new baton today as his last one had gotten “a little shorter” over the past year due to its unending use.
I am so proud of Connor, of his family, and of MY family, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, who consistently show we care about what is truly important. I look forward to more opportunities like this. I am hoping that whomever might read this can share with all you might know that serve the special needs community. There was plenty of room in the hall for more children like Connor and students from Stoney Creek to be immersed in the power, majesty and healing that music can offer. And while not everyone would make it up to the stage to conduct, to experience music live is life impacting just the same.
Please share this with those who can lead our special needs families to these events.
Brian Frazee is the person to direct inquiries about upcoming related events and express interest. His email is: email@example.com.
Last year our music director, Leonard Slatkin, wrote an article for the Huffington Post expressing how he felt at this rehearsal.